After three games in three days to open the season, one thing became very clear about the UCSB men’s basketball team. To paraphrase the immortal Dennis Green meltdown, the Gauchos are who we thought they were.
Picked as the near-unanimous favorite to win the Big West Conference title, the Gauchos (2-1) rode senior guard Al Harris and a suffocating pressure defense to back-to-back victories over Northwestern State (0-3) and Harvard (1-2), before dropping Sunday’s Travelers Classic Championship game to #20 Stanford. UCSB dominated the second halves of its first two games, outscoring the Demons and the Crimson by a combined 34 points after halftime. The Stanford game was a different story however, as the Cardinal used a significant size advantage down low to shut down the Gaucho offensive attack, and take a 67-48 victory.
“I’m really happy with the effort of our guys,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “I thought we competed well, but when you can’t make shots you’re going to struggle, and we knew that we had to hit from the perimeter [against Stanford], because we just can’t take those horses down low. They’re too big.”
Harris went off offensively in the first two games of the season, but Stanford keyed on him repeatedly and made sure that a post player was waiting for him every time he drove into the lane. The reigning conference scoring leader shot seven of 18 from the field en route to 18 points. The real surprise for Harris and Coach Williams came at the free-throw line, a trip that Harris only made twice, despite repeatedly drawing contact on drives and pull-up jumpers.
“I think Al had 18 of the hardest-earned points,” Williams said. “They did a really nice job of guarding him, and there was nothing going to the rim for him. Al was pretty aggressive and he got to the free throw line two times. What we didn’t do a very good job of as a team was getting Al enough open shots. Al had to get too many on his own, and we needed to get him more open looks.”
While the officials didn’t do Harris any favors, the Gauchos as a team struggled to adjust to a game that was closely called from the opening tip. UCSB was called for six fouls in the first seven minutes of the game, negating the benefits of playing a high pressure, trapping defense. The Cardinal took advantage of the slowed pace of the game, as junior guard Anthony Goods scored 20 first-half points to give Stanford a 35-24 halftime lead. The Gauchos would go on a quick 6-0 run to start the second half, but poor second-half shooting allowed the Cardinal to eventually pull away.
UCSB was the team that pulled away in its first two contests, with Harris leading the way both times. In the tournament opener against Northwestern State on Friday, the Gauchos scored 52 second-half points to clinch a 92-71 victory. Harris led the way with 27 points, while senior forward Ivan Elliott and sophomore guard Paul Roemer chipped in career-highs of 17 and 10 points, respectively. The Gauchos got a scare in the first half when junior forward Chris Devine went down with a knee injury, but he would prove to be back in form throughout the rest of the weekend. Devine, who missed his first two seasons at UCSB due to injury, averaged nearly 14 points per game in the three games and joined Harris on the All-Tournament team.
After a sluggish first half on Saturday against Harvard, the Gauchos pulled away early in the second half, eventually winning 79-61. Harris led the way with 24 points, while senior forward Nedim Pajevic chipped in 16 in his second game as a Gaucho.
In three games, UCSB forced 66 turnovers, mainly because of a new pressure defense that caused countless problems for the Demons and Crimson. After playing in the defensive system in junior college, Elliott indicated that while this system isn’t perfect yet, it will eventually be a key to UCSB’s Big West success.
“I’m teaching other guys and just telling other guys that they have to trust it, because at the beginning, people didn’t think it was going to work,” Elliott said. “You just have to trust the system and buy into it.”